The University Record, October 4, 1999

U to launch education, awareness campaign on dangers of GHB use

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Responding to what Hernan Gomez called a “mushrooming” of the use of GHB—gamma hydroxybutyrate—by young people, the University has mounted a comprehensive campaign to educate and initiate discussion about use of the drug.

Gomez, a medical toxicologist in the Department of Emergency Medicine, joined Jeffrey Desmond, director of operations for the adult emergency department at University Hospital; Robert Winfield, University Health Service; Mary Himlin, clinical pharmacist and clinical instructor at the College of Pharmacy; and Frank Cianciola, associate vice president and interim dean of students, at a press briefing last week to help get the word out about the dangers of GHB and other drugs, alone or in combination with alcohol.

The bottom line, they agreed, is not that students, faculty or staff should be in the business of determining whether or not someone has used GHB, but that all should be alert to the risks of drug and alcohol abuse and that anyone who “exhibits abnormal behavior after ingesting something should go to the Emergency Room,” Desmond says.

On Sept. 25 and 26, eight people were treated at the Emergency Room for symptoms that are characteristic of GHB use. In low doses, GHB can produce euphoria and lower inhibitions; a moderate dose of GHB causes drowsiness, nausea and confusion; and a high dose can cause vomiting, seizures, loss of consciousness, slowed or stopped breathing, reduced heart rate, coma and death.

One of the great dangers of GHB, Himlin notes, is that virtually all GHB is made in “home chemistry labs” from recipes or kits readily available on the Internet. That, Desmond says, makes it nearly impossible for anyone to determine the effect one dose will have since the concentration and purity are unknown and the dosage amount could be widely inconsistent from one time to the next. In addition, the drug’s effect on individuals varies because of body weight and build, body composition and whether it is combined with alcohol or another drug. “There is no quality control,” Desmond stresses.

Statistics on the number of emergency room visits related to GHB ingestion are nearly seven years old, and medical personnel agree that use of the drug today may be much higher. Emergency room reports often do not record that GHB was the cause of the visit because blood testing is inconclusive. GHB is found naturally in the bloodstream. Urine testing, however, does accurately detect its presence.

Figures from 1992 showed that the drug was a factor in 629 emergency room visits nationwide and that 66 percent of the patients were between the ages of 18 and 25, 94 percent were Caucasian and 79 percent of them were male. Himlin noted that the reputation GHB has as a “date rape drug,” while certainly alarming, was not the whole story.

Gomez feels that the number of emergency room visits that could be attributed to GHB were probably underreported, and that “it is likely just the tip of the iceberg.”

GHB has been lauded on the Internet and in health food stores as a body builder, diet aid, soporific, anesthetic and diet supplement. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory issued in 1992 declared GHB unsafe except when used in a physician-controlled study, but did not label it a controlled substance. In Michigan, however, GHB is a controlled substance and possession can lead to a felony conviction and a five-year prison term.

Winfield and Cianciola plan to distribute pamphlets and set up discussion groups that focus on GHB use, and will work with fraternities and sororities and residence hall staff to help educate students. Information from the pamphlets is available at the UHS Web site, www.uhs.umich.edu.